A couple of years ago, Drew Curtis, the founder of the sprawling Fark.com Web forum, wrote a fun book titled, It’s Not News, It’s Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News, which documented the myriad of ways what you see in the legacy media, particularly on TV, is rarely hard news, but filler designed to turn pseudo-events into Big Stories to fill the ever-expanding amount of media air time. (Which all-too-often becomes the home viewer’s equivalent of the cocoon mentioned in the previous post.)
This cartoon, as found by original Newsbuster Matthew Sheffield on Twitter, documents exactly the formula that virtually every cable news channel and the local L.A. stations used to waste hours of airtime in the wake of the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death. Along with, of course, a heaping helping of the newsreader as Victorian Gentleman who would rather gush about Jackson as the “King of Pop” (Jackson’s own self-proclaimed moniker) than discuss the myriad seamier elements of his life:
Update: In the L.A. Times, Tim Rutten writes:
America’s serious news media — whether print, broadcast or cable — are in the grip of a collective nervous breakdown. Embracing popular culture and its icons seems somehow therapeutic on several levels: It appears to address charges that serious media are elitist, as well as the manifest indifference of younger readers and viewers to conventional news. Then there’s the fact of simple, brute commerce; popular culture in the form of film, music and TV now provides an outsized share of the financially strapped media’s advertising revenue. Finally, there’s that source of the news media’s anxiety and confusion — and that great enabler of popular culture — the Internet.
When Jackson’s death was first reported, traffic across the Internet spiked to virtually unprecedented levels. Google’s search engine slowed to a crawl; Yahoo reported “one of the biggest things” in its history; social networks Twitter and Facebook nearly collapsed under the weight of traffic. This newspaper experienced 12 million page views at its website, apparently because it was widely credited with confirming the death.
Whatever they say, many newspaper editors and TV news producers have begun to allow website hits and social media volume to function as a kind of sub rosa ratings system whose numbers dictate coverage and the play of news stories. What’s wrong with that? For one thing, it leads to the sort of irrational excess we’ve all been through since Thursday. No reasonable editor or producer should ignore the kind of public interest we’re seeing. But surrendering utterly to it ultimately undercuts what’s genuinely valuable about serious news media.
A serious newspaper or broadcast news outlet must simultaneously be a mirror and a window to its audience — a look at themselves and an opening to the wider world.
Of course, the “Keep Rockin'” L.A. Times isn’t in the greatest position to offer advice to their fellow legacy journalists on how to cover — and not cover — breaking news. But the media’s Jacksonian frenzy is yet another example of the legacy media collectively losing its mind, then genuflecting about what they should have done better after the event. As the mea culpas after the 2004 presidential election demonstrate, it’s advice they’ll quickly forget, of course.
On Twitter last night, linking to a story in Yahoo.com’s sports section, I chided Chad Johnson, wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals for conflating Michael Jackson’s death with 9/11. But Time magazine is getting ready to cash-in with a special issue, complete with hagiographic cover photo devoted to Jackson. Two guesses as to the last event about which Time cranked out a previous special issue in-between their regular weekly editions.